"There's no pity in the Rose City!" echoes down the street, the words punching the summer air.
At 6 pm, the game doesn't begin for another hour, but roughly 60 soccer fans are already scattered around the parking lot across from PGE Park. Most of them--the core of the self-dubbed Timbers Army--are drinking. In fact, most have been drinking, singing, and watching soccer since late that morning, when the US team lost 2-1 to England.
Part booster club, part Mardi Gras, the parking lot is a staging ground for one of the city's most fervent tailgating clubs. Two young men kick a soccer ball across the rough asphalt. A few middle-aged computer programmers flip burgers and a group of young, preppy women mingle; they are dressed in tight baby tees that have the words "Timbers Army" stenciled between their shoulder blades. An old man wearing a World War II army helmet is banging a snare drum.
"There is no requirement to belong," one of the original members, Jeremy Wright, tells me. "And," he assures, "no penalty for leaving." A former college goalie, Wright is trim and athletic. In his professional life, he is a well-respected environmental lobbyist. But right now, Wright stands holding a beer, looking a little edgy, itching for a soccer game or perhaps a Saturday evening brawl.
"The only requirement is standing and singing," he says, referring to the incessant cheering, chanting, and all-out screaming that goes on in the stands--before, during, and after the game. "If you do that, then you're a member."
Since the moment I set foot in the parking lot, fans have been offering me beer, as well as preaching the virtues and charms of the Timbers Army. Already I've learned about their rivalry with Seattle's fans--which has occasionally turned nasty; a fact, I'm assured, that is the exclusive fault of the lame fans from our sister to the north. I'm also told that the Timbers Army is superior to "Section Eight," the mean-spirited fanbase for Chicago's semi-pro soccer team.
One older fan thrusts a Mirror Pond under my nose, leaning in close to intensely inform me, "NEVER buy beer in the stadium; too expensive."
Later, as the night wears on, I discover there are certain lore and rules to the Timbers Army--but, in actuality, there is no consensus to this dogma. There are about as many ideas of why the Army exists as there are members. About half play soccer themselves. The others are simply fans. Some are highbrow drinkers, others guzzle PBR. One tells me the Timbers Army is a "drinking group that watches soccer." No less than five seconds later, another fan spits into my ear that, "It is about soccer first and foremost; then we drink."
Yet in spite of the organization's sprawling definition, there is one central and inalienable belief that all the members of the Timbers Army agree on--and would go fist to cuffs to defend. And throughout the night, they repeat it over and over again (in increasing volume): The Timbers Army are the best, the most loyal and--goddammit, fuck Chicago--the loudest fans in the whole world of amateur soccer.
WHO YOU CALLING A HOOLIGAN?
Soccer fans don't have the best reputation. Just two months ago, during the national quarterfinals in Italy, small riots broke out at nearly every game throughout the country with hometown supporters showering opposing fans with beer bottles and garbage.
At times, hooliganism seems like an epidemic, infecting soccer fans around the world. Routinely, games in England dissolve into massive fights. And, in Zimbabwe four years ago, fans swarmed a stadium, trampling 13 people to death. In the former Yugoslavia, fans were even recruited into a paramilitary group named the Serb Volunteer Guard and, in 1991, stormed the field, chasing down Croatian fans and players, ultimately setting the stadium ablaze.
One member of the Timbers Army blithely tries to explain that the violence surrounding soccer is a direct reaction to the controlled and precise nature of soccer; the fans need an emotional outlet.
"Rugby players are brutal on the field and gentlemen off," he tells me. "Soccer players are the opposite."
Several local fans assure me there is virtually no "hooly" element within the Timbers Army, even though, yes, they admit, last fall a small scuffle broke out with Seattle supporters and, more recently, about 40 Timbers fans jumped into fistfights at an away game in Vancouver, BC.
For their part, PGE Park--which otherwise promotes family entertainment--has reacted with benign tolerance. What started four years ago with a few vocal fans has grown quickly. When the tailgate party for today's match trickles away from the parking lot, more members of the group show up and the fanbase in Section 107, the home turf for the Timbers Army, swells to 400 yelling and stomping fans.
Yet in spite of this bedlam and chaos, there is a notable lack of security. One of the group's representatives calmly explains that PGE Park allows the Timbers Army to "police themselves." And, indeed, the only sign of security are two beefy, 300-pound guards standing stoically on the infield facing Section 107, their feet spread wide and arms crossed. Every few minutes, a fan will taunt one of the guards, calling out, "Show us your tits."
"HEY GOALIE" YOU SUCK!"
A fan standing near me starts a call and response: "If you haven't shagged your sister," he yells out, "clap your hands."
The fans in Section 107 are standing on the seats, bumping shoulders and stomping their feet. No one sits in an assigned seat. For that matter, no one sits.
Tonight, the Timbers are playing the team from Virginia Beach. Later, as the game wears on, the songs and chants turn more pointed--meaner, dirtier, and, most interestingly, chastising the South for its shameful history of slavery.
Just then, another round of call and response begins. But this time, the cheer changes. "If you haven't owned a slave, clap your hands." The clapping is thunderous.
After an hour of constant drinking and yelling and singing in the stands, the Timbers Army quiets down just long enough for the National Anthem to play over the PA system.
The players take the field and begin arching passes back and forth. But a minute passes on the scoreboard before most of Section 107 notices the game has begun--a realization that immediately fuels the Timbers Army.
With a soaring and graceful pass, the ball crosses from sideline to sideline. In stride, Number 15, Byron Alvarez, catches the ball on the inside of his foot and forces through a Virginia Beach defender. Alvarez moves around another, like a river rushing over a small stone. Trying to block Alvarez's angle, the Virginia Beach goalie rushes out and Alvarez stutter steps, giving enough time for a defender to tangle him up. The ball sails from Alvarez's feet, past the end zone.
As the Virginia Beach goalie squares away the ball for a goal kick, the fans unify in a deafening chant: "Oooohhh." The noise grows louder, finally cresting when the ball sails out of the goalie box. In the wake of the chant, about 100 fans yell out to the goalie, "You suck, asshole."
A lone voice tags on: "And you lost the Civil War."
A few minutes later, Alvarez again has the ball and is charging forward. This time, about 15 feet from the goal, he is tripped and the referee calls for a penalty kick. Fans are climbing on the backs of their seats.
"It's about to go nuts," one leans over to warn me.
On the field, the ball is lined up 10 feet from the goal and Alvarez dances, a little jig to keep the goalie guessing. Then he charges the ball, punting it right of center. The goalie banks left; the ball soars over his right shoulder. One to nothing, Portland.
Alvarez knows exactly what to do: He runs off the field and towards the stands. He punches his hand in the air and then raises his index finger. His smile ignites the entire Section 107.
They go wild--again.
The Timbers play at PGE Park against the Montreal Impact on Thursday, June 30 at 7 pm and against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday, July 2 at 7 pm. Drinking begins at least an hour before the game at the Bullpen, 1730 SW Taylor (and, win or lose, continues there after the game).